Raleigh, N.C. — The spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Raleigh says he was stunned when he turned on his computer Monday morning to find that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning at the end of the month.
"It was very shocking," Bishop Michael Burbidge, of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, said Wednesday. "It's been 600 years since we've heard of such an announcement, so I was caught off guard."
Benedict, 85, said he is resigning because he lacks the strength to handle the duties of the papacy – "a decision of great importance for the life of the church."
Burbidge was on vacation when he and the rest of the world found out about Benedict's decision. He spoke with reporters Wednesday morning before he led an Ash Wednesday Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Raleigh.
"I think the reaction and, certainly, my thoughts are that what Benedict is doing is very noble and very humbling, and he's doing it for the good of the church," Burbidge said. "He's reached that point where he believes his age and his condition does not allow him to serve most effectively."
The Vatican has insisted no serious medical ailment was behind Benedict's decision, though it admitted for the first time on Tuesday that Benedict had a pacemaker installed years before he was elected in 2005 and recently had it replaced.
The pontiff presided over Ash Wednesday services Wednesday, and he received a standing ovation when he arrived for his traditional catechism lesson. His speech was interrupted repeatedly by applause, and many in the audience of thousands had tears in their eyes.
He repeated in Italian what he had told his cardinals Monday in Latin: that he simply didn't have the strength to continue.
"As you know, I have decided to renounce the ministry that the Lord gave to me on April 19, 2005," he said to applause. "I did this in full liberty for the good of the church."
Benedict's resignation sets the stage for a conclave by mid-March to elect a new pope.
The Vatican has made it clear that Benedict will play no role in the election of his successor, and once retired, he will be fully retired. He plans to live a life of prayer in a converted monastery on the far northern edge of the Vatican gardens.
"We await a new leader, a new successor to Saint Peter, so that will impact every Catholic throughout the world," Burbidge said. "So, we await that, knowing ultimately it's God's choice, prompted by the Holy Spirit."